Kalpana Chawla Space Policy Dialogue 2019: Inching towards a new era in India's space program

A big benefit to having a space policy is the encouragement it gives private players.

Editor’s Note: The following is an account of some of the key takeaways from the fifth edition of the Kalpana Chawla Space Policy Dialogue, organised by ORF, which took place between 29 April-1 May 2019 in Delhi. These ideas have been put into perspective for readers in the context of India’s history, recent events in space technology, and the national space policy, which has been drafted but not yet passed by the government.

Space… we’re surrounded by infinite amounts of it, and every further inch of it we explore, we’re confronted with new information, new adventures, new challenges, and new technology to take our exploration further still.

Neil deGrasse Tyson says he loses “sleep at night wondering whether we are intelligent enough to figure out the universe.” It seems a fair concern to have. Even after walking on the moon, landing on comets and roving on Mars, we’re only now flexing our muscles in space exploration. Exploring other worlds is a big part of furthering our understanding of the universe, but the everyday uses of “space”, for the time being, take the form of the 4,800+ satellites orbiting the Earth.

Kalpana Chawla Space Policy Dialogue 2019: Inching towards a new era in Indias space program

ORF Chairman Sunjoy Joshi speaking at the opening of the Space Policy Dialogue on 29 April. Image: Kavya/tech2

Satellites have grown exponentially useful since the 1960s, when the first ones were launched into orbit. We’re now living in times when shutting down a single satellite for 60 seconds could paralyse an entire nation for weeks or months on end. Not only would our mobile, cable and internet services take a beating, so would banking, businesses and, more importantly, peace between nations.

India’s space program has grown – exponentially

Some experts say the earliest show of strength of space technology was when the Tokyo Olympic Games was broadcasted across the Pacific by the American satellite Syncom-3 in 1964. India’s space program took off in the 1960s, when applications of satellites were young, still in experimental stages even in the United States. The first to recognize and nurture the idea of space technology in India was Dr Vikram Sarabhai, the founding father of the Indian space programme and the Indian Space Research Organisation in 1969.

The first decades were very humble beginnings, according to ISRO’s SatCom Director TK Anuradha. Today, ISRO is a force to be reckoned with, with 18 satellites for communications, 21 for earth observation, and eight for observing India, under its belt. The agency also boasts of a diverse family of globally-renowned satellite launchers – the ATV sounding rocket (non-commercial), the PSLV family and the newest addition to its arsenal, the GSLV.

The launch vehicle programme under ISRO combines the work of multiple centres and over 5,000 engineers in its employ. That’s a wealth of resources. Apart from satellites and launchers, the space programme has also found its way to the Moon and Mars on the Chandrayaan-1 and Mangalyaan missions. In July this year, Chandrayaan-2 will be heading to the moon to attempt India’s first ever moon landing, and the Aditya-L1 mission, expected to launch in 2021, will carry the first Indian probe to study our Sun.

Awesome, en route to more awesome

There’s no denying India’s place amongst the emerging space powers. ISRO has powered this rise, and gotten itself a reputation for being an ace in frugal engineering. Yet, space is still a unidimensional activity in India, according to many of the experts who spoke at the dialogue. Spiderman's dear Uncle Sam said it best: With great power comes great responsibility. And India is about to take the wise man's advice, and a big step towards becoming a responsible member of the global space-faring community by drawing up a space policy – a rulebook, of sorts, for all the activity it carries out in space.

Many experts think the idea has come a decade late. Regardless, it will do what any space policy will: act as a guideline for space activity in civil (satellites for communication, earth observation, navigation) and military (surveillance, remote sensing for defense and security) applications. For the private industry, the policy will be a welcome move. It'll organise the many applications of space technology, its applications, and clearly state how the private sector participates in space with the guidance and authorization of the Department of Space.

The organiser of the annual dialogue is an independent think tank in India, the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), that researches India’s capacities and policies in nuclear and space technology, and analyses them in a global context. The Kalpana Chawla Space Policy Dialogue is one of ORF’s many big platforms that brings together experts – technologists, academics, entrepreneurs, policymakers – from India and around the world to discuss new trends, threats and developments in space, and new policies or changes to existing ones that can address them.

The panel of experts that spoke about Women in Space. Image: Ploughshares/Twitter

The panel of experts that spoke about Women in Space. Image: Ploughshares/Twitter

Why India needs a space policy

Broadly, a policy for space needs to make sure that the civil and military uses of space are in harmony, and that all space-faring nations have a platform where both public and private space industries have a say in big decisions. One of the hottest topics of discussion (in the light of India’s recent anti-satellite missile test) was the big challenge of peace in space as space technology rapidly expands.

Cyber warfare is technologically possible today. It will have crippling effects on any country attacked using space weaponry. Anti-satellite tests are one way to defend against or attack an enemy, but an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon is considerably more dangerous. It will leave a lot more damage for a fraction of the cost it takes to make it. It also doesn't help that cyber threats are diverse enough to be combined with conventional and nuclear weapons in space. Politics on the ground is still the bigger threat to how space technology is used. The solution to that, for the time-being, comes in the form of peace treaties that the United Nations puts together. There are also national, international and independent bodies like the European Space Policy Initiative (ESPI), United Nations and ORF, respectively, that are sparking dialogues towards peaceful use of space technology.

With more developing nations becoming emerging space-farers, cooperation between countries that are more advanced in space is unavoidable, useful and important. India is in more than 100 such minor and major collaborations with space-faring countries. While emerging nations in space benefit enormously from these partnerships, this also means they're vulnerable to being exploited by space powers for economic or political advantage. Some of the experts are of the opinion that the onus to prevent this will be in the hands of the developing nation.

Interestingly, Wing Commander Neelu Khatri, President of Honeywell Aerospace, shared a similar opinion in a panel about women in the space industry. Khatri said that the average women can get a lot more opportunities to occupy positions of power if they viewed themselves as empowered enough to reach out and get them. This is one important aspect of women empowerment that shouldn't be ignored in the gender equality dialogue, in her view, and entirely in the control of every woman herself.

The private space industry & startups

One of the biggest benefits of having a policy for space will be how it nurtures and encourages private players to participate in the growing space industry in India. What was easily the single most interesting dialogue over the course of the event was the plight of India’s private sector today.

While there are a handful of well-known space startups in India, the industry is dominated by those with close ties or long-lasting connections with ISRO officials. A competitive, merit-based contest for ISRO’s contracts is something many young entrepreneurs don’t think exists today, when it should.

The second biggest limiting factor in the private sector for startups is a dearth of funding. Competitions and donor funds are not widely available in the space sector, and even the ones that do exist are rarely enough.

Space needs expensive investments, even if many of us are ultimately looking to bring the costs down for the rest of us over time, says Rohan Ganapathy from Bellatrix Aerospace. His is one of the few startups that has successfully secured partnerships with DRDO and ISRO on some important projects. They make propulsion systems and have a commercial rocket of their own in the works.

Many of the startups that attended the event (Bellatrix, Pixxel, Team Indus, and Earth2Orbit, to name a few) started and continue to have the mentorship of senior ISRO scientists and engineers. All indications point to the fact that a ticket to success as a space entrepreneur is engaging in some new-age nepotism with India’s space papa. It also doesn’t help that ISRO claims to have information, forms, and guidelines on its website that entrepreneurs are unable to find.

Up next: a policy for space

In a response that seemed partly diplomatic and partly heartfelt, Dr T K Anuradha, Director of SatCom Operations at ISRO, said she will take the feedback home to HQ and raise it with Chairman Dr K Sivan. Dr Anuradha was quick to admit that some of the older and still-existing players in the space industry know how to navigate the agency’s website and personnel whenever they are in need of it. With newer and younger people exploring opportunities at or with ISRO, Dr Anuradha admits it’s time to make their communications and services more intuitive and user-friendly.

Most were in agreement by the Dialogue's close that the number of startups, companies, and organisations that want to run space-centered businesses are far, far higher than the capacity India currently has today to support them. A large part of the support needs to come in the form of ISRO's know-how, satellites, and launchers, but also approvals and guidelines set by the Department of Space. Leasing or buying satellite capacity from other countries is one way to go. But that would mean far more expenditure for far less flexibility and freedom.

So far, India's space objectives have been synonymous with ISRO's for as long as the history of the space program. But the industry is looking at big changes ahead – clarity and variety in how space is used. Some experts are hoping space exploration will be given more room to grow outside universities in India and find its way into the mainstream among other space activities in the country.

There's a strong opinion that more money, diversity and transparency will move India's pace in space into full gear. And there's no one more excited than the country's young generation of space junkies, waiting at the wings, to venture beyond that horizon.

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